Bevan McKinnon, Our Newest Contributor and Host of Fitter Radio, Talks Coaching, Training, and Testing
Ed. Note—today we introduce a new contributor to the blog, who really doesn’t need that much of an introduction. Bevan McKinnon is known throughout the triathlon world for the podcast he produces with Mikki Williden, Fitter Radio, which reaches an audience of tens of thousands. Bevan is a professional triathlon coach who works at the highest level of the sport AND throughout all the ranks of beginners and intermediates. No slouch himself on the race course, Bevan won his age group at both 70.3 and Ironman World Championships in 2016 before shifting his focus to full-time to coaching. We chatted with him via Skype a few weeks ago, and look forward to his contributions on the Wattie Ink. Blog.
Bevan McKinnon, who are you in the world of triathlon and coaching?
I'm a professional triathlon coach based in New Zealand, Auckland, New Zealand, but I typically operate much more around the world as a result of probably the success of some of my professional athletes, but also because of the reach we’ve had with our triathlon podcast called Fitter Radio that's been going for well over five years now. We've been talking about training, triathlon, and basically all things endurance for about something like 280, 290 odd episodes.
You've said that you found that you loved the training in triathlon more than the racing, even though you hit a very high level in racing. What is it you love about the training?
I just think it's innate programming. I just love the feeling of being fit. Training for my own racing is probably the one thing that I miss the most and that peak level of fitness that you can stay at through different phases of the year. I remember doing my own formal training runs, self-coached, when I was about 12 or 13 for my soccer team that I was playing for. The coaches thought I was absolutely mad.
Do you still train, even though you don’t race as much?
I just love the opportunity to go away and work with the athletes on a face to face basis, because it gives me the opportunity to train with them. So, I just got off the wind trainer having done two hours this morning before this call. I'll probably run later on today. I'll swim tomorrow. I swam yesterday and ran yesterday. It's just part of what I do. It's just part of the things that I enjoy to do. It's my meditation time. It's my thinking time. I feel good as a result of it. So, I find no, I don't need to race to motivate me to get out the door and do some exercise, and I'm in a really fortunate position that a lot of people pay me to be there when they're exercising, and they don't mind if I join in.
I want to shift gears to the podcast. We've talked a little bit about it, just about how much work it is. Even though you've made it past where many podcasts fade away, can you tell me a story from the early days of the podcast where there was some sort of seemingly insurmountable moment, and how you survived it?
We committed to having a professional triathlete interview every single week of the podcast and if not, we'd have an industry expert. I knew a significant number of the New Zealand professionals, so I called one of my mates, Dylan McNeice, and I said "Dyl, can you be our first ever podcast guest?" He was super happy to do it, but I was all new to this, so I'd written out every single question.
It was quite structured, and even though I knew Dylan really well, I wanted to nail it, so I read out the questions. He answered them all. I sent it to Chris, my partner who does the editing, and she said, "There's only one voice. Your voice is not recorded. There's only Dylan's answers, and there's no other voice." At that point, I was just mortified. Dylan knows it to this day. I stayed up all night re-recording the questions into the tape and trying to make it sound as natural as possible. When he laughed, I'd have to find something that I thought was funny to say to match his laugh. It took me over 20 hours to fix it, and then I did the exact same thing the next week with Gina Crawford, another Kiwi pro! So, I didn't learn from my mistakes. We were too embarrassed to ring them back up and say, "Can we do the interview again?"
So a lot of work with the podcast, a lot of work with coaching, a lot of work yourself. What do you do when you are feeling completely overwhelmed?
I'm a big believer in mindfulness. I'm a big believer in meditation. I make sure that I make space in my day for myself, albeit even if it's just exercise. Everyone's going to be different. I'm actually a really massive proponent of quality of sleep. This has happened more so in the last year or two than ever before. I'm putting myself in a position to make sure that I get that eight hours a night. I think that's a huge influencer as to how you deal with your own personal stress budget. That's one of the things that's become more of a focal point in the last couple of years. I think that's made a significant contribution. I'm just treating myself well. I'm just trying to really look after myself as I would ask an athlete to look after their self.
Tell me a little bit about how you decided to make those decisions. Was there something that spurred you to try to be like, "Okay, I've got to get eight hours of sleep," or, "I've got to start eating better?"
I actually, unfortunately, flew back from the UK at Christmas and had a blood clot which developed into a pulmonary embolism. So, I had quite a health scare at the beginning of the year. As a result of that, blood thinners, you've got to stop drinking while you're on blood thinners. I used that as momentum to revisit what I felt was a sensible amount of alcohol in my week to week life. And, I've been, since then, since probably January, not teetotal, but very much a low alcohol percentage drinker. I've found that it's led onto other areas of my life that are in better balance as a result of it. So, that would be some of the impetus as to why I've made some changes. I would actually also say Matthew Walker's book, Why We Sleep, was another one.
I was like, "Holy shit, this is super interesting stuff." And, as triathletes, we are sleep deprived, and we have poor sleep hygiene, and we get up very early in the morning, and we train at bad hours, and we've got full-time jobs, and all this kind of stuff. That was another thing that I listened to at the beginning of the year on the insistence of one of the professional athletes I coach. He had listened to the podcast, and that was me. Wow, I'm going to make space in my life to improve my sleep quality. So, that was another reason that I made a change.
All right, so I'm going to shift gears to kind of the coaching side of things here. Imagine that you and I have just started working together as a coach and an athlete. What does the process look like in the first month together?
What I'm trying to look for in that phase is areas of weakness. So, that can come out of the power meter data. That can come out of heart rate response, GPS files, and the like. But, also, there's a strong component of conversation and communication through that phase, as well. Part of what I need to do is I need to get to know an athlete from a psychological standpoint and an emotional standpoint. I don't need to necessarily be their friend, albeit that everyone I coach is a friend of mine. Because, I don't say it's a hard and fast rule, but I need to buy into their goals as much as they have bought into them themselves. So, that means that I need to enjoy them as a person. I think I find that we try to establish rapport so that we can make sure that the lines of communication are very open and honest.
What's an example of seeing a weakness from a workout file in terms of power or heart rate or pace?
Well, if we talk about age groupers, what's the biggest issue for a long distance triathlete? It's probably falling apart on the run. The majority of age group athletes are decelerating at some point in a long distance race. So I'll be looking at whether I can reveal metabolic inefficiencies within their training. We can use metrics within TrainingPeaks like decoupling, trying to highlight in a steady-state workout whether the heart rate is starting to elevate compared to pace, or if the power or pace is dropping off for no other reason than that the session is increasing in duration.
The other thing I think is a cliché to say, but to slow down and to go easier. I've even had a couple of professionals whose personal, calibrated rate of perceived exertion is off. They don't understand where their thresholds actually lie, or they don't know what intensity relates to their thresholds, and therefore they don't appreciate the value of easy training.
What types of testing protocols do you use with your athletes? Then, what kinds of zones and ranges do those result in that you use in an ongoing fashion?
I don't think it needs to be overly detailed. I think you've got to have a whole host of different ways of establishing two important thresholds. One of them we call functional threshold (or FTP), which can be functional threshold power on the bike or functional threshold pace on the run. Alternatively people call this "lactate threshold" or "anaerobic threshold."
Whatever you call it, we're looking for the maximum lactate steady state point, which is an important physiological marker. Knowing that point allows us to identify, in turn, an intensity below which it’s crucial for 70.3 or Ironman performances: the aerobic threshold marker, which is the other, lower, important physiological intensity. I might use a wide array of different tests to establish those two physiological points, lactate threshold and the lower aerobic threshold. If you think of Dr. Stephen Seiler's work in polarized training, establishing those two markers alone will help us set up an athlete's entire set of training zones, allowing us to prescribe a high volume of work done in or around that lower aerobic threshold.
Then we prescribe a smaller but equally important percentage of work done at lactate threshold or above. This amount of high intensity work helps to define the volume of training that any athlete—whether they're professional or age group—might accumulate during a training cycle. So for people doing long distance triathlon those are the only two intensity points that I'm trying to establish.
This is the "Polarized Training" model, yes?
I'm not as ardent a believer of the true polarized approach that Dr. Seiler talks about. I think there is definitely a place for his "in-between" zone, as you approach an athlete's goal race. As we're getting into the specific preparation phases of training for 70.3 and Ironman racing, I move a volume of work into that middle "tempo" or "zone 3" zone for 70.3 athletes and Ironman athletes. If you think of a half-ironman for an age group athlete that might be 80 to 85% of FTP, an elite Ironman athlete might be riding high 70s to 80% of FTP. That's right in the middle in that gray zone. So, I believe in polarized training for 70% of your prep, but then in the last 30%, I tend to work in a more mixed contribution of intensity.
Got your interest piqued? Bevan will be back periodically to contribute to the Wattie Ink. blog, and we're looking forward to learning more from him. In the meantime, head to Fitter Radio (which will be broadcasting from the Wattie Ink. house in Kona) to get your weekly fix of Bev.
photo courtesy of seven8digital